Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

An Unnatural Disaster

Sorry I've been away, I've had to deal with a (very) minor personal disaster of my own. The only costs are material and psychic -- unpleasant, but it's just stuff.

Meanwhile, of course, none of us has any right to self-pity at this moment. I do wish to point out, however, that the earthquake in Haiti, like the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005, was not a natural disaster. It was largely caused by humans. Haiti and Kashmir both suffered so terribly from earthquakes because of the prevalent unframed masonry construction. The reason both countries relied on unframed masonry construction is that they had long ago cut down all their trees, and were too poor to import timber. Deforestation in these cases resulted not from multinational logging operations as is happening in tropical rain forests, but from a burgeoning human population that consumed wood for fuel and cleared forests because of land hunger. Deforestation also contributed to the casualty toll because it created unstable ground, causing buildings to avalanche.

Getting to a sustainable human civilization is going to be very difficult because fossil fuels are currently the main substitute for biomass. The European settlers cut down the New England forest, not so much for farm and pasture, but for charcoal. Since the advent of the fossil fuel era, the New England forest has grown back. Haiti cannot be reforested unless the people can afford to leave the wood alone. It's a very tough challenge.


kathy a. said...

i'm going to quarrel with you, because an earthquake of that magnitude is absolutely a natural disaster in a heavily populated area, no matter where on the globe it occurs. usually the earth cannot get this much destruction for the effort, though.

the haitian people are more defenseless and desperate than most for a good many reasons, but pure poverty and zip in the way of building codes and appropriate materials certainly contributed badly to the disaster.

what can one say when a country's forests are gone because people need to cook? there was a depth of poverty, chaos, and despair long before this earthquake, on scales that are impossible to imagine from our cozy nests far away.

Cervantes said...

A comparable event in San Francisco results in deaths in the dozens.

robin andrea said...

We are all in some way complicit in the ravages of our planet. Some natural disasters are worsened by the disasters already festering on the ground.

Anonymous said...